Not long ago, my iPod shuffled up a song I hadn’t listened to in ages – a relic of my country-western period. It was by Kathy Mattea and its chorus included the line, “[We] go through life parched and empty, standing knee-deep in a river and dying of thirst.”
It made me think of many students I have talked with over the years and, frankly, of myself as a Georgetown freshman a geological age ago.
All of us find ourselves at one time or another in just that position: knee-deep in the river of all that Georgetown hopes to offer us, but feeling ourselves parched and empty. It’s the dark night of the Hoya soul.
As I reflected recently on the factors that keep many students from drinking deeply of all that Georgetown has to offer, it occurred to me that they almost all fall into one of three categories: listening to idiots, listening to people who are smart but wrong and not listening to your deepest self.
Georgetown – SAT scores notwithstanding – has more than its fair share of idiots. Their idiocy is not their fault – well, it’s not entirely their fault. They have been rewarded for it for a very long time. It’s an idiocy born of practiced good looks, tons of adolescent bravado and, usually, too much money. It’s a sneaky idiocy because it often comes wrapped in an ability to get good grades, but it’s an idiocy all the same.
One of the hangovers from high school is that these folks are too often sadly accorded a begrudging kind of respect by their peers, sometimes well into freshman year and, in some sad cases, even longer. I have seen many otherwise intelligent students squander many months of their unrepeatable Georgetown experience in efforts to win the approval and acceptance of such folks. Idiots and their acolytes are much too self-satisfied to take the time to drink from the deep waters of River Georgetown. Happily, most students – sometimes even the idiots themselves – realize this before it’s too late.
Negotiating your way around the obstacles presented by the smart but wrong is a little trickier. It requires more than run-of-the-mill maturity and self-possession for someone who’s 20-or-so years old – and it often requires help from other wiser souls.
Among the smart but wrong are those who tell you that the primary, or even the only, point of college is to position yourself strategically to be able to grasp whatever post-graduation brass ring you – or, more often, they – have your sights set on: medical school, a Rhodes scholarship, Wall Street, law school, Capitol Hill, whatever.
These folks can be intimidating. They often have Ph.D.s and tenure and impressive titles – occasionally even titles like Mom and Dad. They rarely suffer self-doubt, especially when it comes to what you should do with your undergraduate experience.
Here, too, the potential to squander the fullness of what Georgetown has to offer is enormous. Far too many students give their undergraduate careers over to the hefty demands of goals that are partly theirs but mostly others’ – demands that shape much of their college experience, and most often not in a way that makes it broader, richer and deeper.
y experience is that students who are in the midst of making this mistake – which is basically doing a good thing for the wrong reason – often find themselves feeling deep down that despite their good grades and increasingly impressive resumes, something is not right. They are parched and empty, knee-deep in the river. Many bravely tough it out all the way to graduation that way. The wheels usually come off their wagons before they’re 30.
Finally, both of these traps derive their power from the same source: a student’s failure to recognize and listen to his or her deepest self. Granted, this is no easy task. Nor is it, generally speaking, a task that our society and its pressure-cooker, status-conscious demands have prepared you for while you were in high school.
This sort of listening is a slowly learned but eminently teachable skill, an adult skill and a skill that lies at the heart of what Jesuit education is all about. It makes it possible for you to take a step back from your Georgetown experience right now – whether you’re loving life or thinking of transferring – and ask yourself, “What am I doing here, and why am I doing it, really?”
Good questions, those. Georgetown questions, from the deepest part of our good river.
Fr. Ryan Maher, S.J. is an associate dean and director of Catholic Studies in the College. He can be reached at rjm27georgetown.edu. As This Jesuit Sees It. appears every other Friday with Fr. Schall, Fr. Maher and Fr. O’Brien alternating as writers.
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